Saturday, April 29, 2006

You are what you eat

I guess we’ve all heard the expression, ’you are what you eat’.  Recently, I decided I need to lose 5kg, and I thought the best way of doing that would be just to cut out the sweets, and a bit of the bread, and fish and chips – and it worked, actually there’s 5kg less of me, though maybe another couple of kilos off wouldn’t hurt either … but it’s true, isn’t it? – eating is a really big part of who we are – what people eat today is different to what people used to eat when I was growing up, also people from different cultures eat totally different foods - a particular food and drink can tell you a huge amount about somebody’s nationality, or age: for example tacos, lasagna, hamburgers, sushi.  Food and drink are a huge part of the important holidays and celebrations of our lives: think about Christmas cake, birthday cakes, champagne for celebrations and chocolate for – well, you don’t need an excuse for chocolate, really.

It also seems to me that one of the things we human beings really need to do, is to eat together.  Eating isn’t just about keeping our bodies going – eating together is also what keeps our relationships going, and it’s part of what makes us human.  It even seems that we need to eat together if we want to know God.  Have you ever noticed that in the Lord's Prayer, the very first thing we ask God for is daily bread.  You can’t worship God without it, you can’t be the person God intended you to be if your stomach is empty, and you can’t love your neighbour if your own fundamental needs aren’t being met.  Your fundamental need for food, and your fundamental need to share yourself with other people are somehow connected.

There’s a wonderful movie, called Babette’s Feast, and it’s set in 19th century Denmark, where a small village offers hospitality to a woman who is a refugee from revolutionary France.  Babette, it turns out, was a celebrated chef in Paris, and yet for 19 years she quietly keeps house for the family of the Reformed pastor in this plain and simple fishing village.  After many years, Babette receives an inheritance, and to show her gratitude to her adopted community she spends the entire sum on a sumptuous feast.  Neighbours who haven’t talked to one another for years are invited, and over the unfamiliar tastes and textures of Babette’s marvelous meal they rediscover their need for one another.  Long suppressed dreams resurface as Babette serves course after sumptuous course.  Babette’s over-the-top generousity and her quiet attentiveness gently transform those who are privileged to eat at her table.

When you think about it, food plays quite a big part in the story of God's people told in the Scriptures.  In Genesis, eating what they weren’t supposed to eat leads human beings into the first experience of sin – disagreement about the best sort of food to offer to God leads to the first murder, a brother is tricked out of his birthright over a bowl of lentil soup.  The Hebrews rebel against God in the wilderness because they’re not sure whether God is able to feed them.  Jesus’ first temptation in the desert is to turn stones into bread.  Some of the darkest moments in the salvation-history of God’s people, are about food.

On the other hand, some of the most wonderful moments are also about food.  Like God’s miraculous gift of food and water in the desert, like Jesus’ miraculous demonstration of God’s abundant provision, when he makes a little boy’s lunch stretch out to feed 5,000 people.  I think it’s something a bit more than just a metaphor, when Jesus describes the whole point of creation as a great feast which is going to last forever and where the whole of humanity is invited.

And today we read another Gospel passage where food is really important – Jesus appears to his traumatised disciples and in response to their excitement and lack of understanding he says, ‘it really is me – touch me and see’ – and then he says, ‘have you got something to eat?’.  And this is the obvious point, you’re not seeing a ghost, this risen life of Jesus isn’t just a figment of your imagination, because ghosts don’t eat pieces of boiled fish.  For Luke, this is a really important point, but it isn’t the only point.  It says something quite important about resurrection – the resurrection life of Jesus, and our own resurrection life as well.

By this time, of course, Jesus has appeared to the women at the empty tomb, he has appeared to the disciples on the road to Emmaus, it seems he has also appeared to Simon Peter.  What is remarkable about each of these appearances of Jesus is how often his disciples fail to recognise him, how the risen Jesus has been transformed.  Theologians try to explain this – maybe not very successfully, because this is a mystery that’s way too deep for us – by pointing out that resurrection isn’t the same thing as resuscitation, just breathing new life into a dead body.  Instead, Jesus is raised into a new and transformed life that is different – deeper, more mysterious, closer to the divine world, timeless and unconstrained, less dependent on the circumstances and accidents of the external world than the pre-resurrection life – and yet – he still eats fish.

You might think after all he’d been through he’d have asked for something a bit less boring than boiled fish!  But that’s maybe the point.  Whatever the mysteries of the resurrection life that we don’t understand, there’s one thing we do understand, because Jesus had just shown us – resurrection life isn’t airy-fairy, it isn’t disconnected from the life that Jesus has lived before as a real human being who gets hungry and eats fish.  The resurrection life that we hope for, that we believe in and that we see the evidence for in Jesus, the resurrection life that we recognise as being both a quality of life we can have now, and a promise of eternal life to come, is God’s own mystery – but it isn’t airy-fairy and it isn’t discontinuous from the life we’re living right now.

The second point is this - eating with his disciples is what Jesus has done all along.  Have you ever noticed how many of Jesus’ most important conversations were over dinner?  These are the conversations where people’s lives get transformed, the conversations Jesus has with Zaccheus, with Simon the Pharisee, with Mary of Bethany, the last meal with his disciples, the meal at Emmaus.  The feeding of the five thousand.

Jesus’ hospitality, like Babette’s, transforms all those whose lives are touched by it.  The simple meal of boiled fish, coming after the bread Jesus breaks with the disciples at Emmaus, reminds us of the miraculous feeding of the multitude, and it reminds us of all the meals Jesus has shared with those he loves.  It’s become absolutely central – both a symbol of the sort of radical hospitality that Jesus has been on about the whole time, and at the same time a practice that, if we faithfully follow it, gently transforms us into the people God intends us to be.  Bible scholars refer to it as Jesus’ practice of table fellowship, and it’s not long before the early church recognises that this is the most powerful way to experience, and to celebrate and proclaim Jesus living presence among them.  That’s why in the Acts of the Apostles we read of the disciples ‘breaking bread’ as a community of believers.  That’s why we continue to share the bread and wine of the Eucharist.

We are what we eat – in fact, we are what we eat together.  Who we are as a community of God’s people is formed out of what we share together.  Literally, our identity as a community of faith grows out of the many ways in which we share bread together, not just in the symbolic meal of the Eucharist but in the many eucharists we share as a community, the eucharist of coffee and biscuits after church, the eucharist of parish dinners, the eucharist of working together in the chaos of a Jumble Sale that’s sanctified because we offer it to God as a sacrament.  The eucharist of service to one another, and to the community we live in.  Ordinary things that, when we offer them to God, become holy, and transform us into God’s holy people.